Shadow Government

Why didn't the Obama administration see this coming?

Less than a week after a State of the Union address that relegated foreign policy to an almost parenthetical concern, the turmoil in Egypt serves reminder yet again how global events can surprise and demand a presidency's attention nonetheless.

I am sympathetic to the Obama administration's challenges in staying abreast of developments this past week, and calibrating their public and private diplomacy effectively. The balance has been difficult, between hedging that Mubarak might hang on to power while supporting the demands of the protestors for freedom and reform, all the while trying to minimize violence, and prevent outright chaos and state collapse.

Where I am not sympathetic to the administration is on two counts: their failure to anticipate this and prepare contingency plans, and their neglect of human rights, democracy, and economic reform in Egypt for the previous two years. These failures should be front and center in any post-mortem policy review. The Mubarak regime's brittleness and Egypt's stagnation have long been apparent to many observers. As just one example among many prognostications, the bipartisan Working Group on Egypt co-chaired by Michelle Dunne and Bob Kagan has for the past year been sounding alarms and urging a revision of U.S. policy.

Even a non-Egypt specialist like me has raised multiple concerns about the regime's stability and encouraged the United States to support more vigorously the democratic reformers. For example in March 2009 I warned "on a recent visit, I did not meet a single Egyptian who had any positive words for Mubarak. My queries elicited either frustrated complaints or the furtive silence that comes from decades of living in a tightly-controlled society... Egypt embodies all the maladies of the non-Gulf Arab world: widespread unemployment and even more underemployment, few channels for popular expression, and a resilient and growing Islamist movement ... serious destabilization in Egypt is a real possibility. Which should caution the Obama team against relying too heavily on this traditional U.S. ally and regional leader for any important policy." (See also here, and here.)

Yet as Tom Malinowski laments in this insightful article, the State Department's default posture on Egypt and similar regimes has instead been a succession of short-term calculations on autocratic stability that may pay off day-to-day -- but miss horribly when major paradigm shifts take place.  If anything, the Obama Administration's policy towards Egypt has consisted of a double-down bet on the Mubarak regime's stability and longevity, and a painfully shortsighted eschewal of any meaningful support for democracy and human rights.

Political reform is not the only issue; the Egyptian protests are against economic stagnation as much as political repression, as Egypt's burgeoning population has faced a dismal job market and little prospect for improving their station in life. Here also is another missed opportunity - very little of the billions in U.S. development assistance sent to Egypt in the past decades has supported genuine economic reform, entrepreneurship, and private sector job-creation. Yet lest America's billions in aid to Egypt be dismissed entirely, one potential fruit today may be found in its largest recipient: the Egyptian military. At least as of this writing -- and hopefully going forward -- the Egyptian military has played a pivotal role in preserving order and providing moral support for the reformers.  In doing so it has honored one of the most fundamental tenets of civilian-military relations -- it has protected, not attacked, the citizens that it serves.

Meanwhile, as events in Egypt play out by the hour, various commentators are casting about for historical analogies. One being invoked, mistakenly I believe, is the 1979 Iranian revolution.  Yet as Robert Kaplan points out, there is no Egyptian Ayatollah Khomeini preparing to return from exile and lead an Islamist takeover, nor does the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt receive majority support.  Other analogies are possible, but limited. Perhaps 1986, and "People Power" in the Philippines when the Reagan administration at last withdrew support from the Marcos dictatorship and got behind Cory Aquino? South Korea in 1987? Or 1989 -- and if so, which 1989? Tiananmen Square in China, or the mass movements in Europe that led to the peaceful fall of the Iron Curtain? Or Indonesia in 1998, when Suharto fell, replaced initially by a fellow general but soon enough by democracy (while the Islamists remained a minority)? Or the most recent mass protests in the Arab world, Lebanon's stillborn "Cedar Revolution"? None of the analogies fit exactly, because history does not repeat itself exactly. However Egypt in 2011 plays out, it will soon become an analogy of its own.

Finally, as my former NSC colleague Elliott Abrams points out, Egypt vindicates President George W. Bush's strategic insight in his 2003 speech to the National Endowment for Democracy:

Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe -- because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty. ... As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment and violence ready for export."

The window is diminishing, but not yet closed, for President Obama to seize the initiative and make emphatically clear to the people of Egypt -- and to whatever leaders succeed Mubarak -- that the United States supports their desire for liberty, prosperity, and a better future. Doing so now offers the best hope for a meaningful U.S.-Egypt partnership in the future.

Shadow Government

Egypt's unrest reveals Obama's Middle East strategy is all wrong

Some recent  pieces (especially some by Elliott Abrams) reinforce an important point: The harsh reality of events in the Middle East have all decisively proven that the assumptions that underpinned President Obama's Middle East policy initiatives were wrong. I have great sympathy for the administration as it tries to respond to events that are swirling out of control in the region. The foreign policy team seems to be quite uncertain how to proceed and with good reason: our ability to predict what will happen is probably even less than our ability to shape what will happen.

However, when the administration is finally able to catch its breath, it would be well-served to do a strategic inventory. The results will be tough to swallow, especially for a team that has made so much political hay out of mocking what they considered to be faulty assumptions embraced by their predecessors. But an honest accounting will show that the last two years have rather dramatically rebutted the four core premises of Obama's approach to the region:

  • The key to any progress anywhere was near-term progress on Israel-Palestine.
  • Near-term progress on Israel-Palestine was possible because the chief impediment was Israeli intransigence which was itself due to a failure of the Bush Administration to lean on Israel.
  • Since Obama was willing to administer much tougher love to Israel and since Israel's concerns could be shown to be exaggerated, the Israeli "impediment" could be quickly lifted and progress quickly achieved.
  • Bush's preoccupation with democracy was naïve and thoroughly discredited by Iraq and so nothing was likely to happen on that front in the region, perhaps for a generation but for sure until Obama had made progress on the Israel-Palestine issue.

All four assumptions may have been sincerely held but they were wrong. Because the policy was based on these faulty assumptions, two years were lost. Along the way, President Obama's extraordinary soft-power assets were ineffectively deployed, once-in-a-generation opportunities like the Iranian elections were squandered, and now we are where we are in Egypt. 

Faulty assumptions lead to flawed strategies (cf. Bush administration assumptions about the resilience of the Iraqi state post-Saddam and the strategic plan for Phase IV in Iraq). The mark of a good strategist includes a healthy skepticism about one's own assumptions but even more an ability to admit error and revise accordingly. How well the Obama team handles this latter task will go a long way to determining the success of its Middle East policies in the next two years. 

Update:  A knowledgeable observer raised a worthy response to my post, saying "... you need to address the fact that new govts in Egypt, Jordan, Syria (maybe not Iran) would likely be both anti-Israel and anti-U.S.?  I imagine the Obama Admin felt that working on the peace process would ameliorate both and make democratic transitions more favorable to U.S. interests in the short term. To be fair, I think you need to engage this argument."

He makes a fair point and I hope my original post did not imply that one would have had to be a knave or a fool to make the assumptions the Obama team made in late 2008. After all, the belief that an Israel-Palestine deal was within reach is so tantalizing it captured even the battle-hardened teams of Bush-Rice in late 2007 and Clinton-Albright in 2000. And as my friendly critic points out, it is reasonable to believe that finding a lasting peace between Israel and Palestine would knock out one of (though not all of) the pillars of anti-Israeli and anti-American sentiment in the region, thus helping on the margins other goals like democratic reform.

However, my response would be that the alternative to the Obama approach need not be ignoring Palestinian corncerns or embracing unlimited Israeli settlement expansion, let alone abandoning the goal of the two-state solution. Rather, the alternative would have been intensifying work on what was working -- namely building up the governing capacity (especially the internal security capacity) of the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank -- and accepting gradualism in the areas that were not working - namely big bang diplomatic summitry.  We would be in no worse-off position today. I doubt that President Obama earned much good will in the region of the "well, at least he tried to bully the Israelis into making concessions even if it did not work out" variety. Even Obama insiders have long admitted privately that they mishandled the tactics of the 2009 confrontation with Israel over settlements and, I suspect, many would now agree in hindsight that the president's political capital and soft power assets could have been better deployed to prepare them for the current crises in the region.